Jacobo Gabriel Tomas set off from Guatemala alone at 16 years old, fleeing the violence of the country’s civil war. In 1993, when he arrived in America, the Guatemalan government was committing genocide against Maya ethnic minorities, disappearing unionists and university students, and censoring the press.
Tomas declared asylum on arrival, but U.S. Immigration delayed his case for five years due to a backlog. When his application finally came up for review, the Guatemalan government and rebel forces had signed peace accords, officially ending war. Tomas was denied refugee status and ordered to leave the country.
He didn’t obey. By then, he’d married and become father to two natural-born citizens, with a third on the way. Moreover, the signing of the peace accords didn’t mean that Guatemala became safe overnight. The United Nations reports human rights violations persist today as organized crime remains entrenched in government.
So Tomas stayed in America, working on a farm in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Worthington, quietly paying taxes, raising his four children (ages 9-16), and attending church at St. Mary’s.
“He’s just a very, very gentle man, very humble, very faith-filled,” says St. Mary’s Pastor Jim Callahan. “Working in Hispanic ministry, he’s done an awful lot in helping new immigrants get settled... Just a very hard-working guy.”
In 2013, Tomas was driving when a passenger moving around in the back seat caught the attention of a police officer, who suspected seatbelts weren’t being used.
“I don’t believe that even yielded a ticket, but it put him back on ICE’s radar,” says Tomas’ attorney, Kathy Klos of the Immigrant Law Center.
Still, Tomas wasn’t a priority for deportation. He’d once been convicted and fined for trying to work with expired permits, but otherwise had no criminal history.
Under the Obama administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was expected to focus their time and energy on deporting violent criminals, gang members, felons, and those caught in the process of crossing the border. But the Trump administration recently directed ICE to make no distinction between the violent and the peacefully productive. Tomas became fair game.
Last week, ICE officials told him he had until Monday to drive back to Guatemala. Once there, he would be expected to report to the government that he had indeed left America.
“He’s devastated to leave his family,” Father Callahan says. “To have the family separated, it’s just heartbreaking. And absolutely [he’s frightened] because he says he’s lived longer in this country than he lived in Guatemala.”
St. Mary’s congregation is shocked, Callahan adds. Many have offered to write letters of support or call their congressional representatives. But the decision to spare Tomas rests with ICE, says attorney Klos.
Tomas wouldn’t have been eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) when he came to the U.S. because he was 16 years old, not under 16 as the program requires.
Klos filed an emergency stay of removal on Friday afternoon to buy time. If ICE is unmoved, Tomas would have to leave the U.S. for at least 10 years in hopes that when his eldest child turns 21, he could petition to return.
Tomas’ case has struck a chord with Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhl. It isn’t every day that a mayor calls his congressional representatives and the director of ICE in Minnesota, Scott Baniecke, on behalf of a deportee. But Kuhl says Tomas’ case simply “makes absolutely no sense.”
“What are those four children and the wife going to do now when the breadwinner’s not there anymore?” Kuhl says. “When it comes to communities like ours, made up of 50 percent immigrants, we need the workers. We need to send back the criminals, but to send back a law-abiding, productive member of our society and take away another worker for our businesses makes absolutely no sense.”
Towns like Worthington are being overlooked in the national conversation about immigration and deportation, the mayor complains.
“I see every day, people can’t get workers hired. It’s up and down the street, whether it’s a rental business, car repair, JBS, a major employer, farms that need to be filled, or anywhere in between. People are just having a hard time finding workers. When there aren’t workers, businesses aren’t going to survive.”
- 'I'm an illegal immigrant': Mona Ali is tired of hiding from the American dream
- An immigrant kid responds to a lawmaker’s call that he snitch on his mom
- Trump's immigration policies have people on edge, leading to runaway rumors
- Under Trump’s immigration plan, neither you nor your ancestors would be welcome in America
- Sheriff Rich Stanek refuses to say how much he's doing to deport immigrants